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Friday, December 18, 2020

Christmas With the Gospels -- John

 As we wait for Christmas, I thought I’d take four weeks here to take a wide-angle look at each of the Gospels, the four stories of Jesus’ life from the New Testament. This week we’ll get into John. (You can read my take on Mark here. Matthew is here. Luke is here.)


     As similar as Matthew, Mark, and Luke are, John is at least that different. He has a temple cleansing, but it’s at that beginning of his Gospel and not in the last week of Jesus’ life. (Was there only one cleansing, that John moves for his own reasons — or Matthew, Mark, and Luke all move for their own? Or were there two?) Was Jesus crucified on the Day of Preparation for the Passover — Friday — as John says? Or on Thursday of Passion week, as the other evangelists indicate? John — along with Mark — doesn’t include a nativity story. Jesus is the preexistent Word that was with God and was God “in the beginning” (1:1-2). He was the agent of creation (1:3) and is still the source of light and life for human beings (1:4-5). Jesus’ existence is explained by saying this Word was “made flesh and lived among us,” allowing us to see his glory (1:14). Jesus’ mother is only mentioned three times, and never by name. John alone, however, includes the story of Jesus providing for his mother’s care while on the cross (19:25-27). John contains no parables, no account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (replacing it with the washing of the apostles’ feet), and no references to the Kingdom of God.
     John has organized his Gospel, it seems, around seven signs and seven “I am” discourses. “Sign” is the     word used in John’s gospel for Jesus’ miracles. Interestingly, in the other Gospels Jesus refuses to give his opponents a sign (Mt. 12:38-39, 16:1-5; Mk 8:11-12; Lk 11:16, 29-30). He warns the disciples that many pretenders will do “signs” to deceive the faithful, but that the “sign of the Son of Man” will not be apparent until his “coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory” (24:3, 24, 30). Luke has a slightly friendlier view of signs; he uses the word to refer to Jesus being laid in a manger and wrapped in cloths at his birth (Lk 2:12), while Simeon tells Mary that he will be a “sign that will be spoken against” (Lk 2:34). 
     Unlike the other three Gospels, in which Jesus refuses to perform signs and those who ask to see them do so because they don’t believe, in John Jesus’ miracles are signs intended to provoke belief — and they do — though some also provoke opposition from the religious leaders. They point beyond themselves to the “glory” of Jesus (2:11). The signs are transforming water to wine at Cana (2:1-11), the healing of the royal official’s son at Capernaum (4:46-54), the healing of the disabled man at Bethesda (5:1-15), the feeding of the five thousand (6:1-13), walking on the water and stilling a storm (6:16-21), the healing of the blind man (9:1-38), and the raising of Lazarus (11:1-45). In healing the lame and blind, creating food and wine, and displaying power over the elements and even death itself, Jesus demonstrates his identity as “the Messiah, the Son of God” (20:30). 
     All of the “I Am” statements in some way relate to life. As the bread of life, he gives life to the world (6:35) and offers a promise that the person who comes to him will never be hungry and will live forever (6:51). As the light of the world, he gives to the one who believes the light of life — either the light shows the way to life or the light that is life (8:12). As the gate for the sheep and the good shepherd, he brings abundant life (10:10) and ensures that the sheep will live by laying down his life for them (10:11). As the resurrection and the life, he overcomes death for those who believe (11:25). As the way, the truth, and the life, he brings believers to his Father’s house, where they can live forever (14:1-7). As the true vine, disciples can only live flourishing, fruitful lives if they “remain in” him (15:1-4). Though John definitely distinguishes between Jesus and the Father, the “I Am” statements echo God’s self-identification in Exodus 3:14.  
     More than any of the the other Gospels, John calls the reward of believing in Jesus “eternal life” (3:16, 36, 4:14, 5:24, 6:40, 47, 10:28, 17:2). A disciple is to “not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (6:27). Disciples are to “hate” their lives so that they are willing to give up what they love in this life to follow Jesus and attain eternal life (12:25). To eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood is to have eternal life (6:54). Those God has “given” him receive it (17:2), and those to whom he give eternal life will never die or be taken from him (10:28). 
     This eternal life is prefigured in the raising of Lazarus. The promise is that belief in Jesus allows a person to be in contact with his life-giving power in a way the ensures he will never die. To believe in Jesus is to receive “life in his name.” (20:30) This life is connected to the removal of God’s “wrath” that comes only through Jesus (3:36). If God’s wrath is not removed through belief in Jesus, death is the result; those who believe in Jesus, however, are in touch with the Spirit as a source of “eternal life” welling up like a spring (4:14, 6:63). This life is given by Jesus on the Father's authority (3:16, 5:21, 26, 6:27, 33, 40, 17:2) through the agency of the Spirit (6:63). In some way, a believer in Jesus has already “crossed over from death to life” (5:24-26). Still, that life will only be fully realized when Jesus “raise[s] [a believer] up at the last day” (6:40). 
     John also frequently refers to the concept of “glory” in his Gospel. He tells us at the outset, “we (eyewitnesses, but also readers who believe in their testimony) have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). The last two words invoke the experience of Moses, who asked to see the “glory” of God (Exodus 33). What Moses couldn’t see, John tells us, we have seen. Jesus reveals his glory through signs, but does not accept glory from human beings and decries religious leaders who do (5:41,44, 8:50). He is a man of truth because he “seeks the glory of the one who sent him” (7:18, c.f. 8:54). As his death nears, Jesus prays that the Father will glorify him (17:4-5) and that his disciples will see his glory, glory that comes from the Father’s eternal love for him (17:24, echoing 1:14). 
     John anticipates Jesus’ glorification (7:39, 12:16). When “the hour” for his glorification comes (12:23, 17:1), however, it’s not what a reader might expect. Though his signs glorify him ( the first and last signs are explicit about this — 2:11, 11:4), it’s ultimately in his death and resurrection that he finally and completely glorified. As Jesus is “lifted up,” he is glorified by being restored to the Father’s presence — the same presence he shared with the Father at the beginning of time (17:5, 1:1-2). 
     In John, Jesus’ death is “for” those who believe in him (10:15, 17). Jesus dies on behalf of believers. He doesn’t really develop this line of thought as much as he assumes it. John develops the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion, however, in a way unique to his Gospel. He refers to the cross as Jesus being “lifted up.” Jesus compares himself with the snake Moses raised in the desert to heal victims of snakebite: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (3:14). “When I am lifted up from the earth,” he says “I will draw all people to myself” (12:32). To refer to the crucifixion (and the resurrection and ascension which follows it) as lifting up” seems to be John’s way of completing the “arc” of salvation: the Word comes down from God to live with us and is lifted up to return to God. To dying people, God shows his glory by sending Jesus to be “lifted up” before our eyes so that we may live. 
     This is Christmas. It isn’t just a sentimental holiday. John joins with our other Gospel writers to tell us this story so that we may believe, and by believing have life. May we hear the story of Jesus anew this year.

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